With a government shutdown on the way, federal agencies are taking steps to get ready—including the IRS. The IRS released its contingency plans on Thursday, Sept. 29 (you can read more about it here). Today, the National Taxpayer Advocate, Erin M. Collins, detailed the Taxpayer Advocate Service plans, noting, “today is the last workday I can post a blog before a potential shutdown.”
In her message to taxpayers, Collins stressed that if there is a shutdown, the Taxpayer Advocate Service will not be permitted to assist taxpayers until the government reopens.
Taxpayer Advocate Service
The Taxpayer Advocate Service is an independent organization within the IRS. Their mission is “to ensure that every taxpayer is treated fairly and that you know and understand your rights.” The TAS is your next step when you can’t resolve your issues with the IRS.
Liens and Levies
As I noted in my earlier article focusing on previous shutdowns, federal law also allows for “activities necessary to safeguard human life or protect government property.” You might not think of your tax return as a matter of life or death, but the government begs to differ—the IRS may process tax returns with taxpayer payments to protect those dollars.
Collins explains that the protection of property only applies to government property, and not taxpayers. If a taxpayer experiences a hardship because the IRS has filed a lien or issued a levy, the taxpayer could ordinarily follow up with TAS if they couldn’t resolve the issue with the IRS.
The purpose of a tax lien is to protect the government’s interest in your property, including your real estate and personal property. If you don’t pay your tax bill in full, the IRS can file a Notice of Federal Tax Lien, which puts creditors on notice that the government has a legal right to your property. What this does, realistically, is affect your ability to get credit. If and when you sell any of your assets, you may be forced to turn over the proceeds to the IRS to satisfy your debt. If you pay your tax liability in full, the IRS will release the lien.
A levy is a more serious step. It means that the government is taking action to seize your property to pay your tax debt.
By law, the IRS must release a levy if it determines the levy “is creating an economic hardship due to the financial condition of the taxpayer.” When a taxpayer suffers or is about to suffer a significant hardship due to an adverse IRS action or when an IRS action may result in an irreparable injury to the taxpayer, the National Taxpayer Advocate or her delegate can issue a Taxpayer Assistance Order, which may require the IRS to release the levy.
If a shutdown happens, however, TAS can’t help. In that event, Collins says the taxpayer “is out of luck.”
Fortunately, the IRS is issuing fewer levies than usual—automated levies were suspended because of the pandemic and related issues. But, Collins notes, field revenue officers have continued to issue levies, and the TAS understands that some continuous levies have remained in place.
Harm To Taxpayers
Not only will taxpayers be harmed by collection actions taken during a shutdown, Collins says, “but they may also be harmed by collection actions taken in the weeks preceding a shutdown.” For example, if the IRS levies your bank account, funds in the account are held and then sent to the IRS after 21 days. That means, Collins explains, that at a minimum, taxpayers will continue to be affected by levies issued beginning Sept. 11 if the government shuts down on Sunday. And if a taxpayer is facing economic hardship, the Revenue Officer who issued the levy will probably not be in the office on Monday to assist the taxpayer, nor will the TAS Case Advocates.
Collins writes that she is “beyond frustrated that TAS cannot help taxpayers who are experiencing economic hardships during a government shutdown. Helping vulnerable taxpayers is a big part of our mission.” And she can’t help but recognize “the asymmetry of allowing the IRS to collect from taxpayers while not allowing TAS to work with the IRS to halt or limit collection actions that could literally put the taxpayers in the poor house.” It is, she says, unacceptable.
In her blog post, Collins urged the IRS, the Treasury Department, and the Office of Management and Budget to reconsider this portion of the Lapse Plan and authorize TAS to assist taxpayers experiencing economic hardships to protect taxpayer property. If this is not done administratively, she wants to see Congress pass legislation to specifically allow TAS to assist taxpayers during the shutdown. Collins has previously recommended this step in the Purple Book as part of her Annual Report to Congress.
As noted earlier, this situation remains very fluid. There could be changes to the contingency plan—in fact, Collins hopes there will be. It’s worth noting that in 2013, changes were made at the last minute, including shuttering the TAS offices.
Check back with the Forbes tax team for updates as they become available.